Church of England pension boss’s shares in Shell ‘shocking’, say campaigners

<span>Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy</span>
Photograph: The Canadian Press/Alamy

The chair of the Church of England Pensions Board, which has not divested its £3.5bn fund from fossil fuels, is a shareholder in Shell, the Guardian can reveal.

Clive Mather had a 38-year career at the oil company during which he oversaw a multibillion-dollar tar sands project in Canada.

The Church of England (C of E) has rejected pressure to sell off its fossil fuel holdings. Campaigners said these were unethical investments that were fuelling the climate crisis and urged Mather to resign.

In Britain, the Baptist church and United Reformed church have divested from fossil fuels. Around the world, 17 Anglican dioceses are among more than 500 churches and faith-based organisations that have divested.

The leader of the C of E, the archbishop Justin Welby, said at a recent global conference of Anglican bishops: “It’s the call of the church to stand alongside our brothers and sisters around the Anglican communion, who are already affected by climate change, and to safeguard the environment upon which all of us depend.”

Protesters at the conference calling for fossil fuel divestment included the Rev Vanessa Elston, from Southwark diocese and a member of the protest group Christian Climate Action. She told the Guardian the revelation that Mather owned shares in Shell was “shocking”.

“The C of E needs to divest because the fossil fuel companies have been lying and greenwashing for 40 years,” she said. “They have acted wickedly. If they were serious about the climate crisis, they would be putting 50% of their profits into renewables, but they are not doing anywhere near that.”

One of the Lambeth Calls, declarations published after the conference, demanded the “halting of new gas and oil exploration”. Shell’s short-term expansion plans amount to about 4bn barrels of oil. Elston said: “If you really are going to fulfil that call, that means divesting.”

Operation Noah, a Christian climate group, urged Mather to resign. “In light of his conflict of interest, Operation Noah calls for Mr Mather to consider his position,” said the Rev Dr Darrell Hannah, at All Saints church in Ascot and chair of trustees for the group. “And we again call on the C of E to divest from all fossil fuels immediately, not next year.”

The C of E £10bn church commissioners fund has also not divested from fossil fuels.

Bishop Shourabh Pholia, from the diocese of Barisal in Bangladesh and who attended the conference, said: “Up to 18 million people may have to migrate [from Bangladesh] because of sea-level rise,” he said. “Therefore, I want to stand with the protesters to do justice to the earth and save the whole of creation.”

Mather has always recused himself from any discussion of, or direct contact with, Shell. A C of E spokesperson said: “Any suggestion that Mr Mather’s shares in Shell in any way influences the pensions board’s investment policy around fossil fuels would be false. The pensions board and church commissioners have a clear five-year strategy on fossil fuels, agreed by the General Synod in 2018.”

He said the results included a net zero oil and gas standard being piloted by oil and gas majors, investor pressure leading to companies adopting emissions targets and divestment from companies refusing to engage. The C of E would divest from fossil fuel companies not aligned with the Paris climate agreement by July 2023, he said.

Related: Concern over Church of England pension board fossil fuel industry links

At the C of E’s general synod in July 2021, Mather described his former employer Shell as a “beacon across the sector”. Another member of the pensions board, Richard Hubbard, worked for BP for 28 years, while Welby was the group treasurer for Enterprise Oil from 1984 to 87.

Divestment campaigners argue that selling off fossil fuel shares is a powerful way to reduce companies’ social licence to operate and restrict their access to capital. More than 1,500 institutions managing $40tn have divested from fossil fuels, including almost 200 pension funds.

Shell said in 2020: “An erosion of our business reputation could have a material adverse effect on our brand, our ability to secure new resources or access capital markets, and on our licence to operate.”

Opponents of divestment argue engaging with companies as shareholders to drive change is a better way to tackle the climate crisis. The C of E pension fund holds about £10m of fossil fuel shares.

The C of E pension board says it required fossil fuel companies it invests in to have “alignment of capital expenditure and production plans with a net zero target”. However, in February, the most comprehensive study to date concluded that accusations of greenwashing were well-founded against major oil companies that claim to be in transition to clean energy, including Shell.

“It’s clear that investor engagement has failed,” said Hannah. “Given the overwhelming harm that fossil fuel emissions are causing to people and planet, it is no longer ethical to profit from fossil fuels, something the C of E continues to do, and something that, sadly, Mr Mather is apparently still doing as well.”

One of the most high-profile supporters of fossil fuel divestment campaigns was the late Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” he told the Guardian in 2014.

The vast majority of fossil fuel reserves owned by countries and companies must remain in the ground if the climate crisis is to be ended, a 2021 analysis found.

Experts have warned that if governments fulfil their pledges to slash carbon emissions, much of these reserves could become worthless. A recent study found people in rich countries could lose more than $1tn in total.